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Pennant chase, MVP up for grabs

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St. Louis' Albert Pujols watches his solo homer against Chicago Tuesday. Pujols is having an MVP season and could win the triple crown.

St. Louis’ Albert Pujols watches his solo homer against Chicago Tuesday. Pujols is having an MVP season and could win the triple crown.

Kyle Ericson, Associated Press

Get ready for a scintillating September stretch drive.

Seven teams entered the season's final month within four games of the National League wild-card spot. The AL MVP Award is up for grabs and four division races remain too close to call.

"There's no telling how things are going to turn out, but I do know this: You have to play good baseball at this time of year if you're going to get in," Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said.

Ten NL teams still have a legitimate shot to get into the playoffs.

After games on Labor Day, the Giants and Braves were way out in front of their divisions, but St. Louis fell into a tie with Houston and Chicago was just 1 1/2 games back in the NL Central.

In the wild-card race, Florida routed Montreal and moved a game up on Philadelphia, which lost to Boston in a makeup of game rained out June 20.

The traveling Expos fell four games out — meaning pivotal games will be played in Puerto Rico this week. Montreal begins a six-game homestand Friday against the Marlins and Cubs in San Juan.

And somehow the Arizona Diamondbacks were still in it, even though Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were 11-15 combined.

Players and fans all over the country will surely be scoreboard-watching for the next few weeks.

"I think that's what's so exciting about having a wild card," Florida catcher Mike Redmond said. "This is why it's in place, to have a race like the one we've got now. Seven or eight teams in it, that's unprecedented and I think it's great for baseball."

There are tight races in the American League, too, where seven teams are fighting for four postseason spots.

A nine-game winning streak left Oakland two games up on Seattle in the AL West. The Yankees have yet to put away their annual rivals from Boston, and Chicago was two-games ahead of Minnesota and the upstart Royals by the AL Central.

"It's a dream come true for me, getting a chance to play meaningful games in September," said slugger Mike Sweeney, who never played on a winning team in eight previous seasons with Kansas City. "We've got a month to go and we're just going to march on. It's going to be a great month."

The pennant race might determine who wins the big individual awards as well.

Athletics ace Tim Hudson (14-4, 2.40 ERA) is locked in a Cy Young duel with Esteban Loaiza (18-6, 2.45) of the White Sox. Toronto's Roy Halladay (18-6) could have a chance if he lowers his 3.58 ERA.

The MVP race is wide open. Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Frank Thomas — among others — can stake their claim with a big September.

"I don't think there's any clear-cut favorite," said Seattle second baseman Bret Boone, who warrants consideration himself. "The next five weeks will separate the winner from the rest — the guy who makes an impression. Right now, you can't even pick."

Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella can.

"The guy with the best numbers is Delgado," he said. "Why should a guy get penalized if he's playing for a lesser team if he's had the best year? It doesn't say anything to me in the MVP voting that each guy has to come from a pennant-winning team. There are probably eight or 10 very deserving candidates."

In the batting race, seven players were hitting between .320 and .325, including Garret Anderson, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Magglio Ordonez and Ichiro Suzuki.

Not all the numbers are nice, however. The Detroit Tigers need to go at least 9-17 in September to avoid matching the 1962 New York Mets' record of 120 losses in a season.

Two Detroit pitchers, Mike Maroth (6-19) and Jeremy Bonderman (6-18), could become the first 20-game losers since Oakland's Brian Kingman in 1980.

In the NL, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Gary Sheffield are having MVP-worthy seasons.

Bonds, whose father died recently, has been playing with a heavy heart and hitting clutch home runs for San Francisco. He seems the choice so far.

"He means so much to that team and he's such a weapon. He can change the game just by being in the lineup," said Colorado's Preston Wilson, who led the NL with 126 RBIs.

Pujols has a chance at the league's first Triple Crown since Ducky Medwick in 1937. Leading the majors in hitting, he was three homers behind Bonds and 12 RBIs back of Wilson.

A reliever could capture the NL Cy Young Award for the first time since San Diego's Mark Davis in 1989. With Atlanta closer John Smoltz on the disabled list, Dodgers relief ace Eric Gagne seems to have moved out in front with a dominating season.

He tied a major league record with his 54th consecutive save Sunday night, 46 this year. He had struck out 120 batters and allowed just 32 hits in 69 1-3 innings.

"If ever a reliever did deserve it, it would be in this case," teammate Dave Roberts said.

Russ Ortiz (18-5, 3.71), Jason Schmidt (14-5, 2.21), Kevin Brown (13-7, 2.26) and Mark Prior (14-5, 2.36) are starters still in the hunt.

With at least five starts left, Greg Maddux must win twice to become the first pitcher with 15 victories in 16 straight seasons. He and Cy Young are the only ones to do it for 15 consecutive years.

Dontrelle Willis has faded a bit for Florida, leaving the door open in the Rookie of the Year race. Making a move is unheralded Scott Podsednik (.316, 34 steals), who recently helped the lowly Brewers to a 10-game winning streak while nobody was watching.

But there's plenty left to watch for in September — and much to be decided.